What happens when you don’t have a corporate culture obsessed with customers – Lessons from United

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A man is forcibly removed after not giving up is pre-paid seat on a United Flight

We witnessed one of the most extreme examples of what can go wrong in a business that has truly lost sight of its purpose.

As a former United Global Services member (United’s top tier for frequent fliers) I was appalled at how badly United handled a relative routine situation that probably happens multiple times a day in various cities across the US. What on first pass looked like the removal of a potential terrorist happened to be a paying passenger who was also practicing physician.

United sometimes over sells airline tickets in order to make sure they fill their flights and remain profitable. I am not against this practice, it makes business sense. However when this impacts customers, (and it inevitably will) this becomes a true test of an organization’s customer centric culture. Will it do what’s best for the customer? (A customer centric view) or will it protect a short term myopic view of its profits for that particular flight (a transactional view).

In this case United choose its policy and procedures over doing the right thing for its customers. Clearly there was an upper limit on what was available to be offered to make this situation right for their customers. United claims they offered $1000 to passengers to take another flight so that crew members for another flight could board to go to another plane – there were no takers. Instead of upping the compensation to a point that passengers felt like it was a fair deal, they decided to pick passengers based on their frequent flier status and other connecting flights. Three left peacefully although clearly unhappy and one refused resulting in the social media and traditional media storm that came after a video showed the passenger being forcefully removed.

Company Centric CEO Reaction – Oscar Munoz

Those of us that work in the culture space know that the CEO and top team set the tone and shape organizational culture.

Oscar’s initial response was to apologize for having to “re-accommodate these customers”. While externally he made attempts to diffuse the anger at the situation internally he sent a memo to employees that defended the crew’s actions, calling the passenger ‘disruptive and belligerent’ and praising his staff for going ‘above and beyond‘.

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I understand he wants to stand behind his employees, support them and not throw them under the bus for this incident but really he was trying to “protect” the company and the United Brand. This message also reinforces poorly thought out policies that do not get to the heart of what great companies do – they have a culture that puts the customer first.

Finally, two days later Mr Munoz has accepted responsibility for the disgraceful incident:

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight, and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard………. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

A colleague of mine recently relaid an experience he had in a very similar situation on an Emirates flight. He said they just kept increasing the enticement to get of the plane. Eventually enough people took up the offer. They ended up giving away 2 business class return tickets from Australia to Dubai  as well as accommodation plus $US600.

This price was small compared to what United will now go through…..

United takes a $255 million dollar bath.

The value of United has fallen by $255 million as a result of this one incident and the bad press and social media storm surrounding it. How much were they offering passengers to deplane again?

Eric Schiffer, CEO of Reputation Management Consultants, termed United’s handling of the incident “brand suicide.”

“When you go onto a United flight, you shouldn’t have to be concerned there will be blood or you will get slammed in the face,” Schiffer said. “I think you will see an effect on sales from those who are disgusted by the gruesome action. And it’s catastrophic for a brand’s trust.”

No doubt United will lose customers and it deserves to, what comes next is a question of leadership and culture.

If all employees have a customer centric mindset and are empowered to do what is right by the customer this would not have happened.

That’s what we do at MarketCulture. We help companies understand the importance of putting the customer at the centre of the organization – a mindset that establishes the idea that “What’s best for the customer is best for the business”

Why it’s time for the banks to shift their corporate cultures

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Image Source: htmvalerio

Big banks and investment houses around the world have been guilty of bad behavior stemming from unacceptable corporate cultures that have led to the disaster of the global financial crisis in 2007-2009. This was followed by the London foreign exchange scandal in May 2015 when six global players agreed to pay $US6.5 billion in fines for their misbehavior. On a smaller, but still significant scale, behavior of the big four Australian banks has come under scrutiny and evidence indicates that they have failed the culture test. A banking enquiry was instigated in Australia with several recommendations made, but not yet implemented.

A big part of the answer to poor corporate culture lies in the large banks developing a strong customer-centric culture. This is a culture where the well-being of their customers is a central philosophy and value that guides decision-making. It is a philosophy embodied in a bank’s vision and purpose that is well beyond making money. It is a mindset acted out at all levels that says “what’s best for the customer is best for the bank”. This doesn’t mean that the banks give their customers everything they want. It means that they understand the needs of their customers and deliver what they promise embodied in their strategy to deliver value and a good experience.

The leaders of big banks will tell you they are customer centric and do this. They point to improving customer satisfaction and net promoter scores. That may be evidence of improving customer centricity, but it does not give us the direct evidence of a strong customer culture. To show that evidence they have to measure it directly – not just some type of anecdotal absolute measure, but using a valid tool that compares their customer culture with the best in the world like Amazon, Virgin and Lego. These companies and others have a powerful purpose that aligns vision, values and strategy around serving their customers and communities that is embedded as a culture in everyone in the organization at all levels and all functions. It is led, role modeled and reinforced in their decision making by their senior leaders.

There is such a valid benchmarking tool available called the Market Responsiveness Index (MRI). This tool based on extensive research and validation testing now enables a bank to benchmark itself in a global database of more than 250 organizations on 8 decisive cultural capabilities. It points out cultural strengths and weaknesses and guidelines for fixing them. It provides credible evidence of a bank’s level of customer culture. This can provide the checks and balances that banking leaders need to be confident that their culture is as it should be – serving customers and the community (profitably).

The Customer Culture Imperative – an award winning book – provides the framework for measuring customer culture directly and the research that underpins the MRI benchmarking tool.

This can help bankers sleep at night as well as the rest of us in the community. And it can allay the fears held by regulators of potential ongoing problems that stem from poor cultures in large banks.

Why are so many customer-centric leaders on their own?

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Many customer centric leaders we have spoken with are facing challenges they did not expect. While they themselves understand the imperative for a customer culture that will drive future business performance and sustainability and act as role models in leading the business in this way, so often they feel alone and frustrated at the top. Despite their best efforts their leaders don’t see it in the same way.

Why? Because their direct reports are still operating with a functional mindset. Or they see proposed initiatives to strengthen the culture to improve customer experience as extra work they don’t have the time for. Or they don’t understand what it means to be a customer-centric leader and why it is critical in today’s disruptive business environment. And this is spiraled down to middle management and to the people who report to them.

This is perpetuated by managers’ KPIs that are primarily functionally focused. This creates silos, lack of collaboration and lack of effective support for organization-wide initiatives.

This is not solved by ad hoc efforts to get people on board.

It requires a commitment to an organization-wide initiative that measures and benchmarks the current level of customer-centricity and engages leaders at all levels for the their inputs. It requires the development of a customer-centric strategy designed to align people with purpose and job relevance that connects the value they deliver to the customer. It needs to create a focus on easy to understand, credible and robust organization-wide customer metrics that everyone can buy in to. This needs to be part of an implementation roadmap of digestible steps that inspire people to participate in and carry through.

Above all, this must be tangible, meaningful and actionable.

Often the hardest part for a senior leader feeling all alone and frustrated by his or her team members that don’t ‘get it’ is to make a start.

The best place to start is to get a tangible benchmark of where we stand today as a business against the most customer-centric organizations in the world. This assessment involves the participation of all leaders and places a mirror to our business. The Market Responsiveness IndexTM (MRI) is a powerful tool to help you get your team on board. It is an assessment tool that will show you that you are not alone – in fact there are many others in different parts of your business and at different levels that think just like you do.

And they, just like you, want to make a difference that counts.

What do customer centric companies do? Create Advocates for Life.

corso281In my travels in recent weeks I have experienced two examples of how a customer-centric attitude and behavior produce memorable customer experiences. Both of these were in hotels in different countries.

In Rome my wife and I stayed at Hotel Corso 281. We planned to go south for a few days by train and wanted to leave a large case at the hotel and pick it up again on our way from the Amalfi coast via Rome to Venice. Even though there would only be a 45 minute time between our change of trains in Rome, Delia, the front office manager assured me that they would send a taxi with my bag to the station as soon as my train arrived in Rome. So we took the chance. When I nervously called the hotel on the morning of our journey and spoke to the hotel front desk a different person was fully aware of my situation. As we pulled into Rome station I called again and another front desk person was fully aware and organized a taxi to send the bag. When the taxi arrived at the station it had a large sign with my name in the side window and I gratefully took my bag. Soon after I received a call from Delia to tell me the taxi driver reported to her that the bag had been delivered. We made the train connection all because of a display of team collaboration embedded in the belief that the customer’s needs must be met. When next in Rome we are going back to stay at Corso 281.

In Dubai I checked in to the Rihab Rotana hotel after a 7 hour flight from London. The front office manager gave me his card and also the card of the other front office manager who was off duty. He assured me to call them any time if there was a problem or something they could do. This gentleman, Mazen, was gracious, attentive and carefully explained all hotel services. This manner of care could be seen from all staff in the hotel – from housekeeping to concierge to the gym and pool deck.. Soon after checking into my room a bowl of fruit was delivered. Each day in my week long stay I was greeted by the smile of Daryl, a young lady in the restaurant who seemed to be there for all seven days of my stay. She told me that their team of five often had to work long hours and 7 days because when the hotel was very busy they had to make sure all guests received a great experience. Sometimes at the end of the day even though she had already been there 12 hours her greeting and smile never diminished. I will go back and stay at Rotana in Dubai.

While these things are small for service people with the right attitude and attention to customer needs, they are huge for the customer.

Bottom line – I am an advocate of both these hotels, they stick in my mind, I will go back and I will recommend anyone that asks to try them as well.

Do you attract the right talent to your organization? People that focus on the reason their job exists? Does the leadership of your organization focus its attention on delivering a great experience?

You can learn more in our book the Customer Culture Imperative

Trump – the ultimate salesman but now comes the true test, will he deliver?

 

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Love him or loath him, one thing seems certain. Donald Trump understood the perceived needs of the middle-American “working class” and their real needs for a bigger share of America’s wealth. In business we refer to them as disenfranchised customers. In this case it was a huge proportion of the electorate that felt abandoned and had lost hope of achieving “the American Dream”.

The decisive power of a customer centric sales approach is on show here. He had the odds stacked against him – the media, the Republican party leaders, less resources than his competitor, a perceived lack of authenticity, a flawed character on show for all to see, a dubious business track record and inconsistency in his views. Any independent marketing observer would say the Trump brand was tarnished. Yet he prevailed.

Why? He listened to Americans, understood their anger and concerns and revived their aspirations. He understood how to communicate to them in a way they could understand and he effectively used fear as a motivator for action – in this case bringing them to the polls to vote for him. He used the old maxim – “the fear of loss is greater than the desire for gain”. It demonstrates that if you can tap into real needs and create an emotional connection that demands action you can create a following and eventually loyalty irrespective of flaws or weaknesses in your product. Such is the power of a customer-centric mindset. We might say customer centricity “trumps” strategy and superior resources.

Donald Trump has done the first bit of being customer-centric – creating perceived value in the minds of enough Americans to deliver him the presidency. Now he has to deliver the promise.

How he does that will require strong customer-centric leadership – ongoing insight and foresight and a team that has the mindset, capabilities and strategy with an alignment with the external environment that delivers value to middle-Americans. He will need to be consistent in his communication, be prepared to act on feedback that may differ from his own views and implement policies that will deliver on his promise. He will need to do even more than that – demonstrate his authenticity as a leader who really cares more for the American people than himself and demonstrate a character that commands respect and even admiration.

If he cannot do that he will be a one-term president.

Many senior leaders are like Donald Trump. They talk the talk and communicate great promise to their employees and their customers. But a majority of them do not display customer-centric leadership, do not walk the walk and don’t demonstrate they are in it for the long term value for delivery of value to their customers, employees and community before rewarding themselves. Those leaders are transitory, do not leave a legacy and often create chaos for all around them.

If you want to know more about customer-centric leadership contact MarketCulture and read The Customer Culture Imperative.

Customer Centric Leadership in Action – A lesson from Elon Musk

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One of the central tenets of being a customer centric leader is listening to customer feedback and responding with action.

There is no better recent example than Elon Musk’s response to a customer complaining about the Tesla charging stations being used simply as car spaces.

The Tesla customer complaining happens to be Loic Le Meur, a fellow entrepreneur and major tech influencer, with 130k followers on twitter. You could argue that probably holds more weight than just your average customer but clearly the issue was one bubbling up and on Elon’s mind.

Here is the interchange from the two on twitter below:

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Loic’s tweet was responded to within 20 minutes and within 7 days the press announced “Tesla to begin charging idle fees to those remaining on the charger beyond a full charge”

As the team at OfficeChai reported:

“Tesla was going to charge $0.40 for every minute a fully charged Tesla would stand at its parking stations after a five minute grace period. This simple change would ensure that people wouldn’t leave their cars at parking stations, preventing others from using them.

And what’s incredible is the pace at which the product change was implemented. Tesla might still call itself a startup, but it hardly is one – it has over 30,000 employees, and large engineering teams. To have a product feature conceptualized, implemented and shipped in a week is nothing short of miraculous.”

Now this might not be the perfect solution but Tesla will listen to customers and refine further as needed.

This is what customer centric leadership looks like in action, in this case led from the top. Elon’s expectation is that everyone in Tesla is listening to customers and responding to continually refine and improve the experience and value being offered.

Are you are customer centric leader? Find out more in our book, the Customer Culture Imperative

 

How a Customer Centric Culture can save lives

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The team at MarketCulture recently ran a one day leadership workshop in Sydney, as is often the case we get to hear some incredible stories of the power of customer thinking.

One that really stood out was the story of a driver for Virgin Trains.

Virgin Trains is a great story of a business that is always trying to improve the customer experience, Richard Branson is well known for saying “there is always another way to delight a customer.”

Many people would think why would you include train drivers in a program designed to improve the customer experience? They just need to drive the train, they are hidden away at the front with little interaction with actual customers.

Virgin did not believe this, their philosophy was that everyone matters when it comes to delivering a great customer experience. As a result the train drivers were included in workshops designed to help each employee think about their role in delivering great experiences.

A week or two after one of the sessions, a veteran train driver was taking the normal route he had taken for many years and as he rounded the bend on a bridge he noticed a slight bump on the tracks. It was not particularly unusual, small bits of debris can often end up on the tracks. However this time, with the recent customer thinking training on his mind, it made him think more deeply about the bump. More specifically he thought about the passengers on the train and his responsibility for keeping them safe.

He wondered whether passengers had noticed the bump? At the next stop he decided to radio the maintenance crews and report it. In the past it was not something he would normally do as it would mean an investigation of something that was in his 30+ years experience probably nothing.

He continued to the end of his journey for the day. As he pulled up to his last stop his shift manager was there waiting.

“That bump you radioed through”… the train driver winced thinking he wasted a bunch of people’s time… the Shift manager continued “our engineers were just out on that part of the track, it seems a strut supporting the bridge has failed. If we kept running trains over that section we would have had a derailment and hundreds of people could have died. I am so glad you noticed it, you have helped us all avoid a catastrophe. Even if it was nothing, I am glad you reported it, customer safety really is our number 1 priority.” The train driver was relieved, not only had he averted disaster but he had been empowered to do the right thing for customers even if it had consequences for the train’s operations.

The driver was later awarded outstanding employee of the year and celebrated at the annual Virgin Conference in the UK.

This is a powerful story about how customer thinking can help people connect their work to the bigger picture and their responsibilities in creating a great customer experience.

For more stories on Virgin Trains and other great customer centric companies you can check out our book, The Customer Culture Imperative